The Google Content Ad Fraud Lawsuit: Just the Facts, Ma’am

Last week I blogged about the April 22 filing of a class action lawsuit claiming that Google defrauds advertisers by automatically opting them into paying for clicks resulting from ads place on the (allegedly low-quality) content network.

Regular readers of my Content Advertising column know that ad delivery to the content network can be turned off – but only if advertisers know how.

Curiously, the suit claims that advertisers have an explicit opportunity to place separate bids on content ad groups, and that setting the content bid to zero implies ads won’t run on the content network (see a copy of the complaint here).

But this explicit action is only possible under certain circumstances described below – circumstances that may expose a huge flaw in the filed complaint.

First let’s walk through the screens an advertiser sees when they set up a new AdWords keyword-targeted campaign. (Click on the images below for a full-sized view)

The first screen allows the advertiser to set the names and targeting of the campaign and the first ad group. Any mention of the content network? Nope.

The second screen allows the advertiser to input the first advertisement. Still no mention of content.

The advertiser uses the third screen to add the first set of keywords. No mention of content, but a potentially misleading line: “When people search Google for the keywords you choose here, your ad can show.” A perfect place to clarify that ads can also appear on AdSense site pages.

The fourth screen lets the advertiser specify budget and maximum click bid. A perfect place to allow advertisers to opt out of the content network – or at least set explicit content bids – which the lawsuit claim seems to imply. Wait – maybe there’s more under “Advanced option: bidding strategy?” No dice – clicking on that triangle just gives advertisers to choose between Maximum CPC and Preferred CPC bidding.

The fifth screen allows advertisers to review their choices before finalizing the new campaign. Still nothing re: content.

Here’s what the advertiser sees after finalizing the campaign. Still no word about content – but savvy advertisers know that at this point, they should click on the “Edit campaign settings” link and see this screen:

Ah, finally the first mention of the content network! As I’ve pointed out in every column and presentation I’ve delivered re: content advertising, the check box indicted by the error is checked by default, and for optimal results from search campaigns, it should be un-checked. More on this later.

I thought it would be worthwhile to describe how Yahoo and Microsoft handle the same situation. Here’s the first pertinent Microsoft adCenter campaign setup screen:

No explicit mention of advertising on their content network, but if the advertiser clicks on the “Advanced options” triangle, the magic of Ajax reveals this:

Voila – the option to turn off ad delivery to the content network – albeit a bit hidden.

Yahoo gets the most points for making opting out of the content network clear and explicitly part of the campaign creation process:

My opinion: regardless of the outcome of the class action suit, Google should make it easier for advertisers to opt out of the content network, as an explicit step in the campaign creation process. The irony is that part of the lawsuit hinges on the claim that the content network is inherently flawed and delivers poor results (e.g. negative ROI) for all advertisers. As readers of my column know, the truth is that excellent results can be obtained via content advertising – a long as best practices are followed. And the principle best practices is turning off content for search campaigns, and creating separate campaigns directed at the content network and not the search network.

One huge irony in the suit claim: the claimant says that advertisers are presented with the opportunity to set separate search and content bids during the campaign creation process:

But as clearly illustrated in the sequence above, that opportunity is not presented during campaign creation.

In fact the only way I was able to see a screen similar to the one the claim describes was by explicitly checking the box telling AdWords I wanted to place separate bids on content ad groups – like this:

Then, and only then, was I able to see a screen resembling the description in the claim:

So unless I’m missing something, the only way the claimant could have seen the screen offering different bids for search and content would be if he explicitly chose to place separate bids on content ad groups – which would imply he was aware of the difference between content and search, and expressed his desire to place separate bids.

Furthermore, look at the text above the words above the Ad Group column: “If the content field is left blank, the default bid will apply.” That may weaken the claimants contention that he believed leaving the Max CPC field blank would result in opting out of the content network entirely.

Note that I took these screen shots from the AdWords interface that exists today. Google may have changed the campaign creation process and user interface sometime between November 2006 (the date the complaint says the advertiser started working with AdWords) and now. The complaint is not specific about exactly when the advertiser encountered the keyword bid screen it describes.

Where do you stand on this? As always, let me know via the feedback form below or in the SEW Forum Content Advertising thread.

Search Advertising expert David Szetela founded Clix Marketing in 2003, following a 25-year career in technology sales and marketing. He is active in the Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization (SEMPO) and was the author of two lessons in SEMPO’s Advanced Search Advertising course. He is a regular speaker at PPC Summit, MarketingSherpa and SES events.

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